The Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury

A Jacobean Melodrama

Chapter 5 : Act IV: Murder

Scene One: Sudden Death

So busy had been all concerned that summer of 1613, that the death of Sir Thomas Overbury in the Tower on 15th September had gone more or less unnoticed.

Overbury had been treated unusually harshly in the Tower. Unlike most prisoners, he had not been permitted to have visitors or to write letters. Whose idea this was, and why it was enforced is not altogether clear, but James himself must have had a hand in it. Overbury was, however safe. The Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir William Wade was a stickler for duty. No-one would come to secret harm on his watch.

Before long, Northampton had engineered Wade’s replacement with a creature of his own, Sir Gervase Elwes, who had paid the Earl £2,000 for his influence, via a go-between named Monson, described later by Mrs Turner as ‘a proud and odious man.

With Elwes now in position, Monson asked him to change Overbury’s guard to a man named Weston. Weston had been employed by Frances and Rochester to carry messages between them, and, according to Monson, it was Frances and Northampton who wanted Weston given the post. According to Frances, this was to please her friend, Mrs Turner, who had previously employed Weston.

Weston was later described as ‘a fit instrument to compass black murder that was so well acquainted with foul lust’. Just the sort of man you want to be guarding a prisoner.

Soon, Weston was given a phial of a special medicine to administer to Overbury. It was sent by Lady Essex, but was for Overbury’s own good – although Weston was not to take any himself. Weston was hardly surprised – he had not believed that he was being given the job for nothing. He consulted Elwes about the best time to give Overbury the dose. Elwes immediately twigged to the whole plan and, not wanting to be involved in so nefarious a scheme, told Weston to consider his soul and to pour the poison away, emphasising his advice with a few blows.

He then told Weston that the two of them should keep the matter secret, and let Lady Essex think the dose had been administered. After all, who would believe them if they accused her of attempted murder? She had friends and relatives in high places, and such an accusation was more likely to end in the rapid dispatch of Elwes and Weston than the escape of Overbury from a nasty end. 

Weston continued to guard Overbury, Elwes later claiming that that was more likely to keep the prisoner safe, than letting a new guard in who might slip Overbury a potion without telling Elwes – although Weston later claimed that Elwes only cared that he himself should not be involved in a murder.

Scene Two: A House near Doctors’ Commons, 1613

James Franklin, calling himself ‘doctor’ and once accused of poisoning his wife, entertained Lady Essex and Mrs Turner. Lady Essex asked for a potion to kill a man ‘little by little’. He delivered a brew which Mrs Turner tried out on a cat, which died so horribly that it ‘would have grieved anyone to have heard her [cries]’. Pleased with the efficacy of the potion, the ladies bought some.

Meanwhile, Overbury and Rochester were corresponding. Overbury was convinced that Rochester was doing his best to have him released, and talked up his poor health in the hope that James would be moved by pity to release him. He asked Rochester to send him an emetic once James had been suitably primed. Rochester duly did, but it was mild, giving Overbury only a case of diarrhoea.

Rochester continued to press Overbury to come to an accommodation with the Howards, but Overbury could not be persuaded – he obviously had no idea that Rochester was hand in glove with them by then and believed that as soon as he was released, he would manage Rochester’s affairs in just the same way as previously. He suggested a variety of means for Rochester to work on James, sure that if Rochester remained firm, James would give in. There is no evidence at all that Rochester even mentioned Overbury to James.

Scene Three: The Tower

Rochester regularly sent food, including tarts and jellies, to Overbury, which Elwes claimed were replaced by ones from his own kitchen, as he suspected that attempts to poison the prisoner might continue. One day, another batch arrived, from Lady Essex. Elwes’ suspicions were aroused and the tarts and jellies were stored in a safe place, turning black within a couple of days.

In the summer of 1613, Overbury suffered repeated bouts of nausea and diarrhoea. He took copious amounts of medicine, including laxatives, enemas and emetics and possibly even mercury water as part of a cure. Another delicious medicine Overbury had access to was aurum potabile – drinkable gold, peddled by a quack named Anthony as a panacea for all ailments. Even the seventeenth century medical profession drew the line at that one, and denied that the potion (which did not, in fact, contain gold) could help anyone.

One day in September, just before the annulment decision was to be made, an enema was administered to the prisoner by an apothecary’s assistant who disappeared soon after. Two days later, on 15th September, Overbury was dead – whether of poison administered deliberately, or from the horrible medicines he took is moot. The coroner was called and a jury of twelve empanelled to reach a verdict on the cause of death. It was given as natural causes, the body being recorded as wasted and ulcerated. In fact, the body was in such a state that it began to deteriorate rapidly, and had to be buried the same day. Northampton had sent orders that the body was not to be released to the family – Overbury’s brother-in-law, Sir John Lidcote could attend a quiet interment at the Tower.

Whilst Rochester sent letters of condolence to the family – perhaps motivated by genuine remorse that he had not done more for his erstwhile friend, one gentleman of the court wrote that

‘[Overbury] was a very unfortunate man, for nobody, almost, pities him and his very fiends speak indifferently of him.

Scene Four: A Wedding

On 26th November 1613, Lady Frances stood once again in a wedding gown in the Chapel Royal at Whitehall, in front of the same priest who, seven years earlier, had married her to the Earl of Essex. She was again marrying an Earl – Rochester having received the title of Earl of Somerset lest Frances lose the rank she had become accustomed to. The bride was given away by the King. The wedding presents were even more sumptuous than before - £12,000 worth of jewels from the King included.

In the spring of 1614, Northampton died, and the Somersets were deprived of the advice of a man as wily as any at court. Somerset and his new father-in-law had enemies at every turn, and Frances, too, began to gain ill-wishers as she assured petitioners that, in return for suitable fees, she would ensure their suits were favoured, but frequently failed to deliver. Allegations of corruption against the pair, although still not made to the King, were beginning to be whispered at court.

Scene Five: A New Favourite

In the summer of 1614, whilst on progress, James became smitten with the charms of a young man named George Villiers. He thought to promote the young man to a position as a Groom of the Bedchamber, only to be persuaded against the idea by Somerset. Instead, young Villiers had to make do with the role of cupbearer. But Villiers had the last laugh – in regular contact with James, he looked more charming than ever, and he also had the support of Queen Anne and Prince Charles, who would do almost anything to rid themselves of Somerset.

Somerset was his own worst enemy – instead of accepting Villiers as a pleasant diversion for the King, and retaining James’ affection, he harangued the king at every turn, throwing tantrums and ‘borrow[ing] the tongue of the devil’ as James complained. The King wrote to Somerset, warning him that his behaviour was unacceptable – it was undermining James’ authority, and he must understand that he could hold James only by love, never by fear. If Somerset treated James with love and respect, he would retain his place in the King’s affections, and would continue to enjoy his favour above all other men, but if he proved himself ungrateful, all would be over.

Somerset failed to listen and his place at court began to be undermined.